Embedded over her head in Washington


TIM ROBBINS, in tackling the pretenses of patriotism, has risen to a challenge that mainstream journalism has largely failed to meet. Robbins’ provocative play about the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war and the obsequiousness of an embedded press made its TV debut Sunday on the Sundance Channel.

“Embedded/Live” nails the media’s craven complicity in amplifying the drums of war. As the Los Angeles Times noted in its review of the filmed version of the play (which premiered here in 2003), when a chorus invokes the name of Robert Novak, the audience’s “laughter is followed by uneasy recognition. We might wish this were old news, but it’s still there staring us in the face every day.”

Indeed it is, for columnist Novak was the first to “out” Valerie Plame -- wife of whistle-blower Joe Wilson, a former ambassador -- as a CIA agent. The case landed New York Times reporter Judith Miller in jail, turning her into a cause celebre for her refusal to testify before a grand jury about her contact with sources in the Plame case. “If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press,” said Miller, dramatically equating the protection of secret sources with the survival of a free press.


But what her avowedly principled defense of journalistic sources may turn out to be is a window into the practice of official corruption of journalistic integrity in times of war, which is what “Embedded/Live” so effectively highlights.

Unfortunately, rather than a story about a martyr to the cause of journalistic ethics and a free press, this is about a reporter embedded over her head. It is a depressing example of how far Big Media has moved away from the journalistic ideal of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

Sure, the idea of protecting sources is a good one, in that reporters should keep their word and, by doing so, maintain their ability to secure information in the future. But ultimately the journalist is not morally or professionally beholden to sources but rather to the public. The salient fact of this ugly episode is that the White House was trying to use cultivated journalists, secret sourcing and classified information in an attempt to smear a legitimate whistle-blower who was challenging its rationale for leading the nation into war.

Wilson’s information was clearly important to the public debate, as evidenced by the CIA’s admission that he was right to be angry that phony reports of Iraq attempting to purchase enriched uranium had made it into President Bush’s State of the Union speech. Yet Miller and her defenders can’t or won’t understand that a free press in a democracy depends on the protection of honest witnesses and not on the coddling of those who use the power of government to smear critics.

Miller is still in jail, refusing to talk, even though one of her purported sources, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, supposedly has signed a general waiver freeing journalists to speak to the grand jury about their conversations with him. But the biggest problem with Miller is that her commitment to a biased and manipulative Bush administration and Iraqi exile sources clearly has been stronger than her commitment to reporting the truth.

Here are some of the front-page headlines for “scoops” Miller landed before and after the invasion that have since been discredited: “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts”; “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert”; “U.S. Analysts Link Iraq Labs To Germ Arms”; “Iraqi Tells of Renovations at Sites for Chemical and Nuclear Arms”


To be sure, Miller didn’t make anything up, she just relayed whatever her anonymous sources told her -- nearly all of which turned out to be garbage. In this way, Miller and other reporters like her can pretend to follow the letter of journalistic protocol while flouting its spirit and purpose. What she should have done was challenge her sources and then stop protecting them when she found out their information was false.

All of which was conceded by the New York Times in a too-little, too-late mea culpa about the reporting of Miller and others that appeared on page A-10 in May of last year. “[W]e have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been ... information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” wrote the Times. “Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of [Iraqi] exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq.”

Unanswered was how this embarrassment came to pass. Miller is surely not stupid, so how was she duped so regularly for so long?

Raw ambition is one likely culprit, yet Miller’s protection of her secret sources begs the question of whether she is ideologically loyal to the neocons who guided her for so long.

The bottom line is that every aspect of practicing journalism involves a complex maze of ethical decisions. And, despite being one of the most powerful journalists in the nation, Miller horribly lost her journalistic way when it mattered to our democracy most. Too bad she couldn’t see “Embedded/Live” before she set out to report.